Object Collection’s Cabinet of Wonders
by Miriam Felton-Dansky
The stage setup for Object Collection’s upcoming show, The Geometry—opening at the Chocolate Factory on March 25— reads like a catalogue of the otherworldly and bizarre. Chicken carcasses, video monitors, jars of rainwater, vegetables hooked up to tape recorders, a defibrillator, and a collage of rabbit images, among a vast array of other curios, are carefully arranged on a stage divided into compartments, each one visible only to certain portions of the audience at certain times. This congerie might prompt the viewer toward a literal interpretation of Object Collection’s name—but here, the idea of an “object collection” is more than just an imaginative array of items onstage; it also encapsulates the company’s larger aesthetic interests and aims.
Led by director Kara Feely and composer Travis Just, Object Collection creates performances that combine experimental theater and experimental music in unexpected ways. Their shows offer audiences assemblages of props, people, images, sounds, texts, and actions onstage, avoiding easy narratives to create, instead, a wealth of interpretive possibilities for curious listeners and watchers. Feely and Just—and, in The Geometry, their collaborator, Irish composer Jennifer Walshe—aim to disrupt habitual ways of perceiving through jarring juxtapositions of images and stage actions that the mind doesn’t easily assimilate.
Feely and Just founded Object Collection in 2004, after collaboratively re-staging John Cage’s short works series, Song Books, a collection of idiosyncratic performance pieces—some written for voice, some for electronic instruments, some containing theatrical stage directions. Song Books turned out to contain seeds of inspiration for much of Object Collection’s future work; each of their original pieces combines music with performance, aural with visual composition, and actors with musicians. Frequently, these elements are so closely intertwined that they become indistinguishable from one another. Their piece Gun Sale, which they recently toured in Japan—in the great tradition of American experimental performers, Feely and Just often premiere and tour work abroad—involves actors manipulating small objects on a table, in combination with a musical score. “Was it theater? Was it music? It becomes impossible and irrelevant to distinguish,” says Just. “I have compositions that are solely objects moving silently around.” Some of Object Collection’s works are full-length evenings of original performance; others are presentations of original music. Most times, Feely serves as director—compiling text, choreographing performers, assembling props and scenic elements—while Just composes and performs original music.
In an Object Collection show—their previous works, produced in New York at the Ontological Theater and P.S. 122, include Is This A Gentleman?, Evoke Memories of a Golden Age, Famous Actors, and most recently, 2009’s Problem Radical(s)—there is rarely a plot, a story, or characters, but there is always an overwhelming amount to see and hear. As a spectator, you might become frustrated by the absence of familiar morsels of narrative—or, instead, the constant disruptions might help you become attuned to individual moment of performance, taking in each prop or costume for its own aesthetic qualities and hearing each sound for its own aural beauty. “In theater you have a lot of all or nothing— people trying come up with a system that makes sense, so all the parts of the production, whether it’s the way they speak or move, or the use of composition and spectacle, all those things are pointing toward a central idea, that the audience can grasp fairly easily,” says Feely. “One of the things I’m trying to do is complicate that.”
Like Cage and his longtime collaborator Merce Cunningham, like the experimentalists who pioneered Happenings in the 60s—and also like Richard Foreman—Feely often asks her actors to perform pragmatic tasks onstage, rather than playing a character or feeling an emotion. In one show, performers might be charged with selecting clothing items from a massive, multicolored pile on the floor; in another, they might spend the performance walking tiny toy soldiers across a table. Occasionally, Feely wants them to assume emotional states or “attitudes”—but these elements are still treated formally, not psychologically. “For me it’s important that the actors put on these emotional states like clothing, you have to be able to take them off immediately.”
Feely incorporates text into Object Collection pieces in the same gleefully recombinative spirit, compiling snippets from an eclectic range of sources —and often focusing her directorial attention on the vocal qualities of the actors’ speech, rather than on what they’re saying. “I grab bits from books I find in the dollar bin, internet babble, or weird stuff I see people doing when they think nobody’s looking, and all of that becomes material,” she says. Is This A Gentleman?, for instance, borrowed phrases from British English-language textbooks, estranging commonplaces of speech by juxtaposing them with abstract or disconnected movements. Problem Radical(s) contained strings of agricultural statistics; The Geometry will sample from web sites, arcane film scripts, and the video game “Donkey Kong,” among other sources.
In Cage’s collaborations with Cunningham, the artists often waited until the last moment to combine performance elements—dance and music, stage design and acting were sometimes kept separate until the night of a dress rehearsal. Feely and Just take up this legacy of experimentation, often agreeing upon the structure of a given work in advance but weaving the staging and music together only once they’ve been composed and choreographed on their own. Frequently, this yields fortuitous confluences of elements, made more surprising by chance. In Problem Radical(s), a score of overwhelmingly loud music was played, live, while actors recited statistics about the populations of major cities at breathtaking speed—a conjunction of elements that, together, evoked images of overpowering volume and size. One of the aims in Problem Radical(s), Just explains, was to manipulate audiences’ expectations about the structure of a show— our ingrained perception that performances should build to a climax, then taper off and conclude—by creating a piece that remains in a heightened, climactic state for the entire time. “There’s a constant sense of presence— we’re trying to have this total immanence all the time,” he goes on. “Anything is the point—anything is the climax. It’s all climax. It’s all anticlimax.”
If The Geometry does not attempt to overwhelm its audiences with noise and numbers, many of Object Collection’s larger preoccupations remain. Like Problem Radical(s), The Geometry is billed as an opera—the music scored through, rather than broken into individual segments—and is Walshe’s first major piece to be presented in the United States. In the opera, Walshe and Feely, who compiled the text collaboratively, take up the subject of steganography—the art of concealing hidden meanings in ordinary objects—as well as an eclectic collage of other topics ranging from soap-opera death scenes to video game rituals. In a continued attempt to challenge habits of perception, and easy ways of interpreting what’s onstage, Object Collection will encourage friends and couples in the audience to separate, so that—seeing different parts of the performance at different times—they will literally see disparate versions of the show. Feely and Just hope this will encourage audience members to sift more carefully through what they’ve seen, comparing notes and compiling evidence based on their own partial viewing and selective hearing. “I want to give the audience as much credit as possible,” says Just, in what might be an articulation of the company’s ethos as a whole. “I think audiences are so much smarter and so much more capable and more subversive and more radical than artists generally give them credit for being. Audiences will totally be there! No matter how far we go I know that you guys can take it. And they always do.”
“a perfect high-low cultural mashup”
“a Willy Wonka ride”
“highly recommended…Object Collection is a rarity, marrying cutting-edge new music with cutting-edge theatrical performance practice”